First weekends are all about hope. Fresh grass and fresh dreams. The new tactics that oppositions haven’t yet worked out, and the new players who haven’t yet been paid for. It’s a weekend for flinging perspective to one side and letting your imagination run riot, a weekend of kings and frauds and nothing in between. Mohamed Salah is back. Fulham are doomed. West Ham are in crisis. VAR is good now. And this is our year, as assuredly as all the others were before them.
Naturally, all this feeds giddily into football’s rapacious content‑industrial complex, where things are always being learned, where definitive judgments are eternally being handed down, where phrases such as “ominous statement of intent”, “on this admittedly flimsy evidence” and “early days, but” are thrashed to within an inch of their meaning. Come May, this boundless optimism will inevitably be cannibalised and fed back into the content machine as scornful tweets and hindsight journalism. But then, anybody accusing football fans of getting ahead of themselves is probably guilty of mislaying the entire point of being a football fan in the first place.
Over the years, Everton fans have been more susceptible than most to the seductions of hope. Sixteen consecutive seasons without relegation trouble were never going to be enough to get the pulse racing at a club of this stature. And so, as English football’s elite recede into the distance, Everton remain fixated on the new regime, the new vision, the new blood that may not restore them to their former primacy, but may at least make them feel something again.
Well, here it was. For the first time in what felt like years, Everton didn’t simply beat one of the Premier League’s big clubs, but outplayed them. They did so with a starting XI and a manager who between them have won seven Champions Leagues, five La Ligas, four Serie As, three Ligue 1s, three Bundesligas, the Premier League and the Copa America.
Orchestrating affairs on the right wing was James Rodríguez, winner of the 2014 World Cup Golden Boot. Scoring the winning goal for Everton was Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a young English player on the verge of his big breakthrough.
Despite possessing one of the most feared front fours in the division, Tottenham’s only clear chance fell to their right-back.
Even Calvert-Lewin admitted to feeling the flutter of butterflies ahead of this game, a sensation subtly different to new campaigns of the past. “I couldn’t wait to play today,” he said. “I was just itching to get out there on the pitch.” Football fans are frequently accused of getting overexcited, but let’s turn the question around: if you’re an Everton fan, how is it remotely possible not to get excited about all this?
Of Everton’s three new signings on the pitch, Allan was probably the most effective: quietly fighting fires, snapping into tackles, disrupting Tottenham’s attempts to play on the break. Abdoulaye Doucouré was probably the most dynamic: leading the press, nurturing and progressing the ball in the most crowded areas of the pitch. But the most eye-catching by some distance was Rodríguez, the fallen prince-in-exile with a left foot of pure silk and a left knee made of a very similar substance.
Though it is now almost a week since Rodríguez joined Everton from Real Madrid, there was still something deeply surreal about seeing this genuine A-lister on the same right wing once patrolled by Steven Naismith. Somehow, for all our overexposure to them, great players still have a habit of catching the breath, of taking the touch or making the shuffle that marks them out from their peers.
Here that moment came early in the first half, when Rodríguez was saltily chopped down from behind by Ben Davies and yet somehow still managed to pick himself up with the ball still glued to his feet, before dribbling it past a baffled Davies. There were the no-look passes and delicate carries. A couple of his trademark scissor runs, cutting in from the right wing and either playing it blind into the same channel or shooting from distance.
He created five chances in total, the most by an Everton player for more than two years. Only Lucas Digne had more touches of the ball. Only Richarlison had more shots. And though his defensive output wavered during the course of the match, occasionally exposing Seamus Coleman to the pace of Son Heung-Min behind him, perhaps it was inevitable that his lack of minutes would tell in the end. Still, for a club that looked so anaemic, so lightweight, so short of ideas in this very same fixture just two months ago, this was an ominous statement of intent.
Can Calvert-Lewin lead the line as a lone striker? Can Everton get the ball to Rodríguez against fiercer pressing teams? Will that defence hold up? Perhaps these are questions that can wait for the time being. Success may cost you dearly in football – and let’s not forget that this is a team that have had close to half a billion spent in three years – but hope comes for free. Early days but, on this admittedly flimsy evidence, this may just be Everton’s year.